Minnesota investor: Making life's grade is its own reward

  • Article by: ROSS LEVIN , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 24, 2008 - 4:52 PM

Reaching your goals takes hard work and commitment, but in the end, it's worth it.

This is the time of year when we celebrate graduations. The most ridiculous cere-mony that I ever attended was my children's fourth-grade graduation several years ago at their school. I'm not saying that our kids are super-gifted, but I did expect them to make it past fourth grade. Graduation to me signals a real passage. We graduate not simply from something, but to something.

So as commencement time approaches and we listen to awe-inspiring (or somewhat stultifying) speeches, let's take a moment to look at our own personal report cards. Our lives happen to be the ultimate graduation ceremony and how we live them is our regular coursework.

In his book, "The Soul's Code -- In Search of Character and Calling,'' Jungian psychologist James Hillman says, "We live among a throng of invisibles that order us about: Family Values, Self-Development, Human Relationships, Personal Happiness, and then another, more fierce set of mythical figures called Control, Success, Cost-Effectiveness, and (the biggest and most pervasively invisible) the Economy."

We spend our life being influenced and directed by these things that we often don't see and certainly don't name, yet our response to them creates the lives that we live.

For example, one of life's classes is family. Everyone in a family has expectations for behavior that are based on their individual belief systems and definition of community. While you may have impact over how others respond, you only have control over your own behavior.

As you look to grade yourself over your family dealings, think about things in terms of availability and attention. Availability is quantity time; attention is quality time. The calculus is coordinating when your availability matches that of your partner or children. But attention is your choice to be present when availability intersects.

Many of our clients take regular vacations because they want to create availability that otherwise gets lost because of all of the invisibles to which we have been committed. Determine how you can develop these vital intersections.

Financial well-being is another elective where you will want to improve your GPA. Being financially well-off comes in part from choices around work, saving, and spending. But a no-less-significant piece comes from actively wanting what you already have. I was talking to one of my daughter's teachers whose siblings are both very busy professionals. He said that he chose teaching because he wanted to have an effect on people and he wanted to have some more time for himself. He realized that even with two master's degrees, he will not earn as much as his less-educated brethren. What struck me about the conversation was his happiness with the choices of his siblings and their financial success, as well as his satisfaction with his own choice and his personal success.

Success cannot be measured by your financial balance sheet; it must be measured by your life balance sheet. Experiences tend to be worth more than possessions, but are often not accounted for as we grade ourselves.

Our impact on others is something by which we can make life's honor roll. We attended a funeral celebration for the parent of our daughter's friend. The person was a minister and a coach and the flocks he tended were lovingly packed into the church. He died at a young age, yet this tragically sad event was filled with laughter, love and a tribute to someone who made a huge difference in all those around him. What we give and how we give will matter to others, but it also matters to ourselves.

It seems that our clients who have had the least regret in their lives tend to be those who appreciate and help those around them. They seem to live life from its central theme of possibility.

Another course is your personal development. Author Hillman espouses "the 'acorn theory.' It claims that each life is formed by its unique image, an image that is the essence of that life and calls it to a destiny."

Continuous development and improvement, healthy choices and a strong social network will help your individual acorn develop into a towering giant of a tree. A tree that is firmly grounded in its values and draws its sustenance from the world around it.

But your unique image cannot be determined by others. The invisibles may be barking their orders, but the ultimate instruction comes from inside.

Every day I encounter tests, some of which I pass with flying colors and some of which I have to take again (and again). But since I can't wear a letter jacket with my life's graduation date adorning it, I know that I want to keep studying and learning.

Spend your life wisely.

Ross Levin is the founding principal of Accredited Investors Inc. in Edina. He is a certified financial planner and author of "The Wealth Management Index." His Gains & Losses column appears on the fourth Sunday of each month. His e-mail is ross@accredited.com.

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